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July 21, 2008

A Marshall plan for FATA


July 21, 2008

The new government has announced major reforms in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The prime minister made the historic announcement of abolishing the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) in his inaugural speech and his administration is now planning the nitty-gritty of reforms in the areas.

The FCR and the legal and governance regime it perpetuate are the biggest hurdle in the way of progress and prosperity in the Tribal Areas. It kept FATA backward in the past six decades of our independence. With a population of nearly seven million, the Tribal Areas form a 27, 220 sq. kilometre arch along the Afghan border. This region, was divided by the British Raj and subsequent Pakistani governments into somewhat artificial seven units called agencies and the adjoining Frontier Regions.

Each tribal agency is headed by an administrative officer called the political agent who represents the central government in Islamabad and its regional representative – the governor NWFP. Though some line agencies under the NWFP government provide services to FATA, it has no authority or say in the affairs of these regions.

The political agents have absolute powers with little checks and balances. They are not public servants rather they have a master-slave relationship with the local tribesmen. All of the political agent’s powers stems from the FCR, which makes him the local administrator, judge, jury, police chief and head of all service delivery institutions. To elaborate his absolute authority let’s look into a few specific examples. The political agent can arrest any one under his jurisdictions for three years without assigning any reason. The period can be extended for as long as he wishes. It cannot be challenged in any Pakistani courts of law.

Under sections 20 and 21 of the FCR, the political agent can put behind bars the entire tribes and seize, confiscate or demolish their properties. The PA often engages in

invoking the collective tribal and territorial responsibility to punish the whole tribe or community for the crimes of an individual.

The part of establishment and bureaucracy that benefits from the governance regime in the Tribal Areas has also perpetuated a lot of negative myths and propaganda about these regions and its inhabitants. For instance, an impression has been created that the tribal area is inaccessible and its people are difficult to govern. Nothing can be further from truth. This region is home to historic passes that connected the Subcontinent and Central Asia for thousands of years. Poverty and other circumstances in the tribal areas have forced its people to become on of the most mobile communities in Pakistan.

Today thousands of tribal families are living in the urban centres of NWFP and other major cities, which testify to the fact that they want a peaceful emancipated existence like other citizens of the land. The current security situation in FATA is the result of complex regional and international geo-politics. In fact, tribesmen are the worst victims of the prevailing situation in their homeland. The Pashtun society in the tribal areas is inherently egalitarian and thus best suited for practicing modern representative democracy. One of the first political reforms in the Tribal Areas will be to extend the Political Parties Act to FATA. This is perhaps the only region in the world where people have adult franchise but political parties are banned.

As the bureaucracy in Peshawar and Islamabad is one of the biggest hurdles in bringing meaningful reforms to the Tribal Areas, this should be thoroughly streamlined and reoriented to be the true servants of the tribesmen. Some past and present bureaucrats are too attached to the colonial notions of keeping FATA in the dark ages. They need to learn lessons from the mess they have created and have a mercy on the impoverished tribesmen.

The basic concern of the new system should be the welfare of the border tribes rather than serving some misguided notions of grandeur strategic designs. Tribesmen deserve all the rights and privileges guaranteed by the constitution. However, it is highly unlikely that any political reforms will succeed without a compatible economic package. In reality, FATA needs something on the scale of Marshall Plan to be implemented on urgent basis. If our government can get it right, reforms and development in FATA will not only transform Pakistan but the entire South and Central Asian region.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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